Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals concluded that Benton County did not violate the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), by temporarily withholding records pending notice to a third party named in those records.

Donna Zink made a PRA request for records, which included records regarding sex offenders. The County sent third-party notices to the individuals named in those records, notifying them of the records request. The County’s notices stated that while RCW 42.56.540 permitted the notification, the County did not believe the records were exempt.

In response to the notices, one of the individuals named in the records, John Doe, filed a lawsuit against the County and the requester, seeking to enjoin production of any record identifying him. In an answer to the complaint, the requester asserted a cross claim against the County for violations of the PRA. The cross claim contended the County was withholding records without an applicable exemption, that the County was not required to give John Doe notice, and that the County provided that notice in order to delay or deny release of the records.

Continue Reading Washington Court of Appeals Holds Public Agency Does Not Violate Washington Public Records Act by Withholding Records Pending Third-Party Notification

Attorney General Opinion (AGO) 2017 No. 5 offers guidance on the confidentiality of information shared in an executive session of a public meeting under the Washington Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), ch. 42.30 RCW.

The AGO first concludes that participants may not disclose information discussed in a properly-convened executive session under the OPMA. While the OPMA does not expressly state so, the “duty on the part of participants in an executive session not to disclose the information discussed there is part and parcel of the concept of an executive session.” The AGO relied on out of state authority, treatises, and legislative history to support its conclusion that maintaining confidentiality “is a legal obligation, and not solely a moral one.” This duty only extends to information relating to the statutorily authorized purpose for convening the executive session and not already publicly disclosed.

The AGO also concludes that any officer covered by the Code of Ethics of Municipal Officers, RCW 42.23 RCW, violates that statute by disclosing information made confidential by the OPMA. The Code of Ethics prohibits disclosing “confidential information gained by reason of the officer’s position” and applies to “all elected and appointed officers of a municipality, together with all deputies and assistants of such an officer, and all persons exercising or undertaking to exercise any of the powers or functions of a municipal officer.” RCW 42.23.070(4), RCW 42.23.020(2).

Continue Reading Washington State Attorney General Opinion Addresses Confidentiality of Executive Sessions of Open Public Meetings

In the third of a series of cases, the Washington Court of Appeals in White v. Clark County [White III] holds ballot secrecy extends after mandatory retention periods. In White v. Clark County (2015) [White I] and White v. Skagit County (2015) [White II], the Court of Appeals previously held pre-tabulated ballots are exempt from production in response to a records request under Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW. Because the requests associated with White I and White II were for ballots stored within mandatory retention periods, the decisions did not directly control the request in White III for ballots stored after those periods.

Immediately after tabulation, “all ballots counted at a ballot counting center must be sealed in containers … and be retained for at least sixty days….” The sealed containers may only be opened by the canvassing board for the canvass, a recount, random checks, or by court order. Plaintiff Timothy White (the requester) argued that, after the mandatory retention period, ballots are no longer required to be kept in secured containers and are therefore subject to production in response to a public records request. The Court of Appeals disagreed:

Continue Reading Washington Court of Appeals Reaffirms: Ballots Are Secret

On Friday, July 7, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police activity in public “falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information.” With this holding, the Third Circuit joined the “growing consensus,” of the Circuit Courts of Appeal: the First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have previously reached the same conclusion.

In Fields v. City of Philadelphia, No. 16-1650 (3d Cir. July 7, 2017), the Court addressed the claims of two plaintiffs. The first, Amanda Geraci, filmed police arresting a protester at a 2012 anti-fracking protest in Philadelphia. After she began filming, an officer pinned her against a wall, preventing her from recording the arrest. The second, Richard Fields, used his iPhone to take a photograph of police breaking up a 2013 party. An officer saw Fields taking a photograph and arrested him, issuing Fields a citation. Neither Fields nor Geraci interfered with the police.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Joins “Growing Consensus” to Hold First Amendment Protects Right to Record Police Officers Conducting Official Duties in Public

The Washington Court of Appeals declined to decide what it called an “interesting and important issue” regarding an agency’s obligation under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), to obtain records from a third party in response to a public records request. Because the record and briefing on appeal left “unanswered factual questions,” the court vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC).

In Baker v. Department of Corrections, No. 34967-5-III (Wash. App. June 29, 2017), a DOC inmate requested copies of negotiable financial instruments deposited by DOC into his inmate trust subaccount. With the assistance of Bank of America (BOA), DOC manages this internal trust accounting system to assist with inmate finances, such as an inmate’s court-imposed financial obligations. DOC scans the front and back of negotiable instruments (e.g., checks or money orders) with BOA’s proprietary software and transmits the digital images to BOA. The digital images are not stored on DOC’s system. DOC then destroys the paper copies of the negotiable instruments after a certain period of time.

Continue Reading Documents Held by Third-Party Vendor: An “Interesting and Important” Washington Public Records Act Issue Left Unresolved

Are Your Policies and Practices Up-To-Date?

On July 23, 2017, recent legislation on public records will take effect, impacting local governments across the state. Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594 and Engrossed House Bill 1595 make a number of changes to the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”), and Washington’s laws regarding preservation and destruction of public records, Chapter 40.14 RCW. In many cases, preparing for these changes will require revisions to agency policies on public records and updates to agency practices in processing requests.  Below are some highlights of the new legislation.

Charging for Electronic Records

Agencies will now be authorized to charge for the cost of producing electronic records, including the costs of delivery, the physical media device provided to the requester, and the costs of electronic file transfer or cloud-based data storage. Default fees are $0.10 per page for scanning records; $0.05 for every four files delivered to the requester electronically; and $0.10 per gigabyte for electronically transmitted records. Alternatively, an agency may charge a flat fee of up to $2.00 for the entire request as long as the agency reasonably estimates the cost will equal or exceed that amount.

Continue Reading New Public Records Act Legislation Taking Effect On July 23, 2017

In its second decision related to the Port of Vancouver’s lease of property for a new rail terminal facility to export petroleum products, 1 the Washington Supreme Court held that the Port appears to have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (OPMA), in its discussion of the lease during five executive sessions held in 2013.

The case centers on RCW 42.30.110(1)(c), which permits public agencies to meet in executive session to “consider the minimum price at which real estate will be offered for sale or lease when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of decreased price.” After considering the plain language of the statute, its legislative history, and the practical impacts of a narrow interpretation, the Court unanimously adopted a narrow reading of the statute:

Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Holds That Executive Sessions On Real Estate Sales And Leases Must Be Focused On Minimum Price

By Jake Thomas from The Columbian

A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that Clark County violated the state’s public records act and must pay $15,750 in penalties for mishandling a dispute with former Councilor David Madore over the release of messages from his private cellphone.

The ruling from Judge Daniel Stahnke stems from a lawsuit filed last year by Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako that alleged that the county didn’t adequately respond to his public records request for texts from Madore’s cellphone related to county business.

The lawsuit, which was related to harassment and whistleblower complaints Orjiako filed against Madore, cited Nissen v. Pierce County, a 2015 state Supreme Court decision that determined that communications generated on elected officials’ personal devices are public records if they pertain to public business.

Continue Reading What Happens When A County Elected Official Does Not Produce Records? Washington State Court Finds County Liable For Official’s Actions

On May 16, 2017, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed two public records bills passed by the legislature in April, Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594 and Engrossed House Bill 1595.

EHB 1595 addresses the costs associated with responding to requests made under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”).

First, the bill permits agencies to charge for the cost of producing electronic documents, including costs of transmitting electronic records, the physical media device provided to the requester, and the costs of electronic file transfer or cloud-based data storage. Agencies may calculate their own actual costs, or charge default amounts set by the bill if making those calculations would be unduly burdensome. The bill’s default amounts are ten cents per page for scanning records; five cents for every four files delivered to the requester electronically; ten cents per gigabyte for electronically transmitted records; or a flat fee of up to two dollars as long as the agency reasonably estimates the cost will equal or exceed that amount.

Continue Reading Governor Signs Two Bills Amending Washington’s Public Records Act

A Washington Court of Appeals held that the Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act, chapter 41.56 RCW (PECBA), is not an “other statute” exempting records from disclosure under the Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), because the PECBA does not “expressly prohibit or exempt the release of specific records or information.” SEIU 775 v. Freedom Found., No. 48881-7-II (Apr. 25, 2017). This case represents the latest in a string of PRA disputes between local chapters of SEIU and the Freedom Foundation. In two opinions issued in 2016 (see here and here), the court addressed two separate disputes over the “commercial purposes” exemption of the PRA, RCW 42.56.070(9). SEIU is the union representing the individual workers who deliver personal care services to functionally disabled persons.

This latest lawsuit arose out of the Freedom Foundation’s request for Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) records regarding the times and locations of trainings and meetings for the workers. The meetings were held at state facilities and not open to the public; and, DSHS provided time for SEIU to meet with the workers at these meetings. After receiving notice of the Freedom Foundation’s request from DSHS, SEIU sought to enjoin release of the records, concerned that the Freedom Foundation intended to show up at these meetings to discourage the workers from participating in the union.

Continue Reading Washington Court Holds Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act Does Not Exempt Information from Public Disclosure